Creative Commons: Attar’s ‘Conference of the Birds’

October 24, 2006

This astounding high resolution image of this painting, Habib Allah (c.1600) “The Concourse of the Birds” is available courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is an illustration of the Persian mystic, Faridu’ud-Din Attar’s allegory (c.1100?) “The Conference of the Birds” which I believe is also called Mantiqu’t-Tayr Language of the Birds. This work may have inspired Herman Hesse’s “Journey to the East.” It describes the seeker’s parallel journey to self-discovery, self-actualization, self-realization through the elusive search for God.

Tag clouds, Head in the Clouds, Love and Cyberdelirium

Attar is said to have met Jalálu’d-Dín Rúmí (1207-1273 A.D.) when the latter was still a child enkindling (sp.) him with the insatiable longing for the illusive and unknowable divine essence of all things. (I believe both these Persian mystics, who of course had great impact on Persian literature, also influenced European writers such as the German Romantic poets? Their work is important to me in terms of its philosophical, political and ethical implications during the period of colonization. But that’s another tag cloud.)

Note the line in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) comparing the advance of the army of celestial angels to the flight of all species of earthly birds flying over Eden to receive their names from the Creator. (This is from “The Argument,” “Sixth Book,” Paradise Lost in Paradise Lost and Regained, by John Milton, [1667 and 1671], at sacred-texts.com

“Ethereal trumpet from on high gan blow.
At which command the Powers Militant
That stood for Heaven, in mighty quadrate joined
Of union irresistible, moved on
In silence their bright legions to the sound
Of instrumental harmony, that breathed
Heroic ardour to adventurous deeds
Under their godlike leaders, in the cause
Of God and his Messiah. On they move,
Indissolubly firm; nor obvious hill,
Nor straitening vale, nor wood, nor stream, divides
Their perfect ranks; for high above the ground
Their march was, and the passive air upbore
Their nimble tread. As when the total kind
Of birds, in orderly array on wing,
Came summoned over Eden to receive
Their names of thee; so over many a tract
Of Heaven they marched, and many a province wide,
Tenfold the length of this terrene.”

I actually began my search this morning looking for 100 ways to say “love” in Arabic. This Sunday we will be enlarging our Irish-English-French family to include a beautiful, beloved West Coast daughter through marriage. So along with nurturing the largest sink load of unwashed dishes we’ve had in a while, I’m collecting words that refer to ways of loving. The physical painting I began for them is not going well. I thought I could use some inspiration. Although her family is Persian, I believe that until the last century (?) Persian poets used classical? or pure? Arabic as well as classical? or pure? Farsi. And I know she and I share a deep love for the Seven Valleys Haft-Vádí (1860). The Seven Valleys includes references and/or citations from Attar, Rúmí and Layla and Majnun.
According to Wikipedia, Kurdish poet Nezami (1100s?)’s famous adaptation of the story of Layla and Majnun (Leyli and Madjnun) from Arab folklore reads astonishingly like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I believe that Layla and Majnin are to the East what Romeo and Juliet are to the West? There is even a suggestion that Eric Clapton’s song Layla was inspired by this Arab-Persian-Turkish-Kurd classic.

In my search for 100 words in Arabic for love, I found this site (dairy products? – this I hope is wholesomely apolitical) and I selected these names:

Feminine names in Arabic referring to love
  • ‘Arub, Aroob – Loving to her husband
  • Dalal – Treated or touched in a kind and loving way
  • Dhakirah – One who remembers God frequently
  • Gharam – Love
  • Ghazal – Flirt, words of love
  • Ghaliyah, Ghaaliya – Dear, beloved, fragrant, expensive
  • Habibah, Habeeba – Beloved, sweetheart, darling; a wife of the Prophet
  • Hanan – Mercy; affectionate, loving, tender
  • Hayam, Hayaam – Deliriously in love
  • Hiyam – Love
  • Jawa – Passion, love
  • Kalila – Sweetheart, beloved
  • Mahabbah – Love, affection
  • Mahbubah – Beloved
  • Mawaddah – Affection, love, friendliness
  • Muhibbah – Loving
  • Wid – Loving, affectionate
  • Wisal, Wisaal – Reunion, being together, communion in love
  • Widad, Widaad – Love, friendship
Masculine Names in Arabic referring to love
  • Da’ud, Dawud – Beloved; a Prophet’s name (David)
  • Habbab – Affable, lovable
  • Hamim – Intimate, close friend
  • Kadeen, Kadin – Friend, companion, confidant
  • Kahil – Friend, lover
  • Kamil, Kameel – Perfect; one of the ninety-nine qualities of God
  • Khalil, Khaleel, Kalil – Beautiful, good friend
  • Mahbub – Beloved, dear
  • Muhibb – Loving
  • Khalil al Allah – Friend of God; title given to Prophet Ibrahim
  • Habib – Beloved
  • Safiy – Best friend
  • Wajdi – Of strong emotion, passion and love
My Favourite citations-within-citations from Seven Valleys – Haft-Vádí (1860)

In the ocean he findeth a drop, in a drop he beholdeth the secrets of the sea.

Split the atom’s heart, and lo! Within it thou wilt find a sun.

From the Wikipedia entry on Seven Valleys – Haft-Vádí (1860)

the path of the soul on a spiritual journey passing through different stages, from this world to other realms which are closer to God,[1] as first described by the 12th Century Sufi poet Attar in his Conference of the Birds. Bahá’u’lláh in the work explains the meanings and the significance of the seven stages. In the introduction, Bahá’u’lláh says “Some have called these Seven Valleys, and others, Seven Cities.” The stages are accomplished in order, and the goal of the journey is to follow “the Right Path”, “abandon the drop of life and come to the sea of the Life-Bestower”, and “gaze on the Beloved”.

The following paragraph from a translation of “The Conference of the Birds: Farid ud-din Attar” translated by Afham Darbandi and Dick Davis. London: Penguin, 1984 (~1177), also mentions the seven valleys.

“The allegorical framework of the poem is as follows: the birds of the world gather together to seek a king. They are told by the hoopoe that they have a king — the Simorgh — but that he lives far away and the journey to him is hazardous. The birds are at first enthusiastic to begin their search, but when they realize how difficult the journey will be they start to make excuses. The nightingale, for example, cannot leave his beloved; the hawk is satisfied with his position at court waiting on earthly kings; the finch is too afraid even to set out, and so on. The hoopoe counters each of their excuses with anecdotes which show how their desires and fears are mistaken. The group flies a little way, formally adopts the hoopoe as its leader, and then decides to ask a series of questions about the Way before proceeding. These questions are also answered by illustrative anecdotes. The last question is about the length of the journey, and in answer the hoopoe describes the seven valleys of the Way. The journey itself is quickly dealt with and the birds arrive at the court of the Simorgh. At first they are turned back; but they are finally admitted and find that the Simorgh they have sought is none other than themselves. The moment depends on a pun — only thirty (si) birds (morgh) are left at the end of the Way, and the si morgh meet the Simorgh, the goal of their quest. Though Attar treats his material in an entirely different way from Sana’i, it is possible that a shorter poem of Sana’i suggested the device of the birds to him. In Sana’i’s Divan there is a poem in which the different cries of the birds are interpreted as the birds’ ways of calling on or praising God. A second source may have been Kalila and Dimna. This extraordinary popular work, also called The Fables of Bidpai, originated in India and was translated into many languages. The Persian texts of Kalila and Dimna which survie are relatively late prose versions, but Rudaki, who lived early in the tenth century and was one of the first poets to write in Persian, made a verse translation of the work, which Attar could have known. Significantly enough, Rudaki used the same couplet form as Attar was later to use for The Conference of the Birds; but a direct influence is impossible to prove, because all but a few fragments of Rudaki’s poem have been lost. In Kalila and Dimna animals talk and act as humans; the fables usually have a moral point to them, and their narratives are allegories of human characteristics and failings. This is precisely the method of Attar’s Conference of the Birds, and the two works also show a similar kind of folksy humour. Another work which probably influenced Attar when he came to write his poem is the short Arabic treatise The Bird by Avicenna. This is the first-person narrative of a bird (clearly representing the human soul) who is freed from a cage by other birds, and then flies off with his new companions on a journey to the “Great King”. The group flies over eight high mountain peaks before reaching the king’s court; there are a few moments when Attar seems to echo Avicenna’s imagery (For an in-depth paper on The Conference of the Birds see this 1984 publication entitled “The Conference of the Birds: Farid ud-din Attar” translated by Afham Darbandi and Dick Davis. London: Penguin, 1984 (~1177). ).

[The con”
For an in-depth paper on The Conference of the Birds see “The Conference of the Birds: Farid ud-din Attar” translated by Afham Darbandi and Dick Davis. London: Penguin, 1984 (~1177).

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